Willett Bird, Susan

Susan Willett Bird is the Founder and Chief Futurist of Women.future, the world's only global teleconference event, (MainEvent 2001, which will be held this April 5 around the globe). The Company and its website, womenfuture.com, are devoted exclusively to sharing a NEW conversation about leadership for both men and women, and the trifecta of forces in the new economy: women as a market, a workforce, and as a group of leaders who "get" what it means to lead in a networked, inclusive style. As you know, this is one of Tom Peters' abiding passions. We caught up with Susan in her mid-town Manhattan offices.

[Editor's note, August 2005: women.future is now called Wf360. The interview has not been changed, but the link above and the one at the bottom of the interview have been re-directed to the new website.]

tompeters.com asks …

What is Women.future?

SB: Women.future is a resource on leadership. We’re very excited about what is happening with the change in leadership in the new world of work—and we’re especially interested in how it affects women, and how women are changing the workplace. So we see ourselves as a resource for that on a full time basis. It all comes to a head on April 5 when we have what we call MainEvent 2001—which is a gathering of world class business leaders from literally all over the world. MainEvent 2001 is a series of conversations between these leaders—not speeches, but issues that every leader really asks him or herself. These live conversations are then telecast by satellite to over 200 sites around the world. The wonderful thing about MainEvent 2001 is that people who are participating can interact on several levels. They can address questions to the leaders in the television studios via email or fax. They are also encouraged to have conversations amongst themselves because, unlike a lot of other conferences, we facilitate interaction. Additionally, every downlink site has a local panel of business leaders who are responding to the issues raised by panelists and speakers at the broadcast site in the New York studio with ideas such as, “This is terrific, but how does it affect us here, in Omaha, or Hong Kong, or Toronto?” They can then bring the issues into the context of the community in which they’re located.

Essentially, we’re a business based on conversation—and what we believe is a whole new conversation.

What is the “whole new conversation?” How do you explain it?

SB: Everyone knows the world has changed incredibly in the past few years for reasons that are now common sense—the Internet, globalization, new choices and awareness that have resulted, and a new individual consciousness about what’s possible in work and life.

When you look at how these changes affect women and men, we are seeing a new level and quality of conversation about what has traditionally been called “women’s issues.” In leading companies the conversation about and with women has moved beyond the l980’s and l990’s siege mentality.

While we acknowledge there’s still a ways to go in terms of awareness and substantive changes, we also see women and men in the workplace talking differently together, leading differently, working differently than they have before, and making different choices. At the center of this change is both a recognition and appreciation of the reason to have diverse talents at the table, and what women’s leadership styles bring to the table. We see a workplace more focused on human—not male or female—capital and talent. That’s good for everyone.

Now when you consider the realities of the economic power of women as purchasers, as customers, as a market, and as a huge segment of the population, and realize that these women are “talking,” as the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto so ably noted, about EVERYTHING, you realize that you have a potent NEW conversation about the role women play in the new economy. Savvy companies get it and that conversation is becoming a cutting-edge, strategic advantage. Look at Nike, Schwab, Accenture, and other women-friendly businesses. They talk about it. They value it. They act on it. That’s the whole new conversation that we’re committed to bringing to people on April 5 and beyond.

Tell us about the MainEvent 2001 on April 5. Who’s participating in this conversation?

SB: It’s a blockbuster group of speakers—we have several people who were named to the Fortune Top 50 Business Women List, Ellen Hancock from Exodus for example. We have Linda Wolf, who runs Leo Burnett, one of the world’s greatest ad agencies. We got interested in her when we learned she jumped out of an airplane with one of her clients, the U.S. Army. Then there’s Marjorie Scardino, CEO of the Pearson Group, which owns The Financial Times; Merle Okawara, Chairman of eBay in Tokyo; and, representing a major food conglomerate, we have Betsy Holden, CEO of Kraft Foods, Inc., a $24 billion company. It’s quite a list and it’s really varied. Wendy Kopp, for example, started Teach for America when she was in high school, and still leads that venture, which is about the business of teaching. J.C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation, is a leading expert on the world of video games and one of the most original thinkers we know. Watch out, she might deconstruct Pokemon for us! Sally Helgesen, one of the authorities on women’s ways of leadership will be there again this year. She is the author of numerous books about the workplace—she coined the phrase “web of inclusion”—women’s impact on the workplace, and on the economy in general.

Several men will be speaking. Tom Peters will join us again, and as you all know one of his favorite topics of discussion right now is women and how they are a market, a group of leaders, and a workforce to be reckoned with. We have General James L. Jones, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, which may seem like a really amazing choice. We asked him because he is responsible for the new leadership within the Marine Corps, in which women very much play a big role. David Gergen, political analyst and former White House aide to several presidents, is planning to be there. We’re excited. It’s a great mix.

Why Women.future? What are the forces going on that are making something like this worth doing right now?

SB: Women.future is really right, right now, because it’s a time of convergence of several really major factors that have made this possible. One is, that the world of technology, specifically the internet, has made it possible for us all to communicate, and it means that everyone who attends this event can help shape the agenda by participating on our website before the event and then through the questions that they ask on the day of Main Event 2001. The Internet has changed the rules of business forever. We’re non-hierarchical. We are not interested in things that aren’t inclusive, because there is a war for talent. We’re interested in things that really draw on all people’s talents and strengths, so we are interested in having a global conversation.

It—a conversation of this size and scope—has not been technically possible before now. It also hasn’t been of interest to people. And frankly, it’s really opportune now because there are so many incredible women leaders—and many of them are great examples of the new leadership that is required from all of us.

What in your own experience allowed you to take an idea—from scratch—and turn it into a successful global event?

SB: I was privileged enough to have a number of really incredible relationships that I was able to draw upon and then develop into the kind of strategic partnerships necessary to make a really big idea like this fly, even with a small team of people behind it. That was really the key to this. We partnered our way into it! For instance, we needed to have a website, so we partnered with a web company to get that website. We needed to be in the satellite business, but didn’t know anything about the satellite business! Now, we know a lot, because we partnered with people who had a core competency in satellite communications.

But if you’re asking how we branded it—how did people gather around it, we did it with conversation. It is a conversation and it resulted from passionate conversations that had gone on for many years with my friends, so when I approached those people, they acted as if they had just been waiting for my call!

So when I first I asked them to participate in some way, it was very seldom that they said, “No I don’t want to be involved.” Instead it was, “How big, how fast, what do you need?”

For example, I remember when we talked to Myra Hart, who’s at Harvard Business School and was one of our speakers last year. When we first told her about Women.future she said, “Wild—I love it! But if you say you’re going to be global, then you had better really be global.” I said, “Great! How should we do that?” and she came back with, “Make sure you include Latin America.” Of course I asked her, “Who should we call?” She said, “You’ll figure it out!” We did, and this year we’ll be in several cities in Latin America.

It’s a matter of taking the relationships one has, and bringing them together around something that is so compelling that people attach to it not because of the person but because it has a vision that’s bigger than anyone, and they want to be part of it.

Tell us about your background. What are the skills and talents you have that you’ve brought to this, that allowed you to start something from scratch? What is Women.future tapping in you?

SB: Well, I suppose it’s several things. I was one of those little kids that would say “Let’s have a show!” so that’s probably at the heart of it. I’m a lawyer by training, and I’ve started and run several businesses. I was a partner in the production of Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway, so I’ve got some show biz under my skin. I’m a total optimist about the world in general.

And I realized at some point in my life, several years ago, that I was in a unique position—that I had a burning mission in my head and heart to share the kinds of relationships and conversations that I was privileged to have because of what I was doing in the business world and because of the organizations I belonged to. I wanted to make those available to people everywhere. It was the sense of the bigness of this, and the optimism that said we can do this if we bring other people in—other people who are as obsessed as we are!

If I’m a participant on April 5 at MainEvent 2001, what can I expect to get?

SB: If you’re in our audience—whether you’re in Asia, Latin America, or Des Moines you will have access to a conversation that has never taken place before—one that is truly important, and that you wouldn’t want to miss. The good thing about this conversation is that it’s among people you’d really like to know. You’re “at the table” with them.

And you will know them in a very candid fashion, much differently, more informally, than if you heard them give a speech. And the event that day will not only allow you to continue the conversation, it will introduce you to people in the place that you are—that will make several of you very likely to continue the conversation in the city you live in. We’ve provided for it by partnering with Fast Company to create “cells” in our downlink cities. So whatever dialogue begins on April 5, you’ll be able to continue it.

Does that include on the web?

SB: Absolutely. You know that MainEvent 2001 is interactive, which literally means people can ask our speakers questions. Now we expect to receive more questions than people can answer on the “day of.” But we’ve pledged to get ALL of those questions answered and to post them. So we feel that it’s a great reason for people to come back and see us, to learn more. Last year we found that the questions were great. We don’t want to lose them. And we are planning a series of webcasts throughout the year, following the event.

It’s part of your legend that you created all of this by making phone calls. Thousands of phone calls to your network, and the networks of your network! Tell us about how you view, and value, and have used networks to create Women.future?

SB: Networks are the core of my life. I’ve never really thought about it exactly that way. But I’ve realized everything I do is connected to people. It was something my parents did. I learned this from my father. People would come to him with a question and I noticed he’d always pick up the phone and connect them with other people. It’s an approach that simply works. All of us in life meet people, and do things for and with people and form relationships with people around which we can create things. I very much believe that if it’s a good enough idea then it’s bigger than you are, which means you need help. And if you pick up the phone and ask for help you’ll often get it. It’s a great way to do market research on how good your idea is. Because if you get a lot of noes on your first call—then you realize you need to study it.

In the case of Women.future, when I picked up the phone I thought, “Well, first I’ve got to have a few people who will be interesting to others, and who will want to hear them speak.” I called some of my friends and said, “Look, I’m doing this thing and please reserve April 5.” So we had some early yeses—from people like the catalog guru Lillian Vernon, Myra Hart from Harvard, and Anita Roddick from the Body Shop, and armed with those early yeses, we were able to go to our website partner, and a print partner and make this thing real.

And then there’s the power of the Internet. What fascinates me about the Internet is that you can be just one person, and be connected to the whole world. Our network expands every day. From Tanzania and Singapore to Milan and Toronto, people everywhere want to be part of what we truly believe, again, is a whole new conversation about women and men and business.

Do you have a parting shot for us?

SB: Absolutely. Come join us on April 5. You can find the site nearest you on our website, www.womenfuture.com. It’s a conversation not to be missed. It will inspire you, connect you, and arm you for an exciting future. Everyone is invited!